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Edward Said

Edward Said

Published: March 30, 2010
Edward Said

Edward Said

Palestinian author, professor, and advocate for peace with justice in Israel/Palestine. Said was a former member of the Palestinian National Congress who also taught at Columbia University and wrote extensively on Palestinian rights.

Professor Edward Said was born in Jerusalem on November 1, 1935, to a wealthy, educated Palestinian family. At the age of 12, while attending the Anglican St. George’s Academy in Jerusalem, his family became refugees when Jerusalem was annexed and became part of the State of Israel. He was sent to study in Massachusetts in a private college preparatory school at 15.

Said attended Princeton University from which he received a B.A., and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University. While in college, Said was too preoccupied with his work to pay much attention to Palestinian politics and the problems of his homeland, as he was excelling as both a student and a pianist. However, the second wave of Palestinian refugees created by the 1967 war devastated him. After this, he would reconnect with his Palestinian identity. 

In 1963 he joined the faculty at Columbia University as Professor of English and Comparative Literature and in 1992 he became University Professor—Columbia’s highest academic rank. His most influential book, Orientalism, was published in 1978. In it, he argued that Western writings about the East are permeated with a bias that is founded in the deeply rooted colonial structure between East and West, and that the East is always identified as a weak and feminized “other.” Orientalism had a major influence on the fields of literary theory, cultural studies, human geography, and history, as well as the general academic discourse concerning Palestine and Israel.

Said became one of the most influential advocates for Palestinian rights in the United States, beginning in the 1970s and continuing until his death in September 2003 at the age of 67.

"Once we grant that Palestinians and Israelis are there to stay, then the decent conclusion has to be the need for peaceful coexistence and genuine reconciliation—real self-determination," Said remarked in 1999. "Unfortunately injustice and belligerence don’t diminish by themselves; they have to be attacked by all concerned. Now is the time."

He was an independent member of the Palestinian National Congress from 1977 until 1991, when he resigned in protest over the process leading up to the signing of the Oslo Accords. He did not believe that the Oslo Accords would lead to a truly independent Palestinian state. His relationship with the Palestinian Authority was a sour one until he praised Yasser Arafat in 2000 for rejecting the Camp David Accords. In 2002, Said helped establish the Palestinian National Initiative, or al-Mubadara, as a democratic, reformist, third alternative in Palestinian politics to Fatah and Hamas. 

Said received numerous awards, among them Columbia's Trilling Award and the Wellek Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association. He contributed many publications to the academic world in a wide range of fields, from music and literature to political theory. His most renowned books include Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Out of Place: A Memoir (1999), and Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society with the conductor Daniel Barenboim (2003). Said regularly wrote on a variety of topics for the The Nation, The Guardian, Le Monde, Counterpunch, and Al Ahram, among many publications.

In 1999 he founded the West-East Divan Orchestra with his friend Daniel Barenboim—an Argentine-Israeli conductor. With Said’s help, Barenboim taught master music classes to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. 

Until his death, Said remained a preeminent voice for peace with justice in Israel/Palestine.